Monday, January 5, 2015

Cleaning the Refrigerator

“Order is the only possibility of rest. “  —Wendell Berry

I cleaned out my refrigerator yesterday. Such pleasure! Such satisfaction! Emptying the chaos of its contents, scrubbing out the spills and stains and leaks and then re-ordering each item in perfectly arraigned rows and clusters. Every time I opened the door, I was greeted by such tidy order. Sauces and beer bottles and milk cartons standing at attention and saluting me with a smile, assuring me that all was well in Refrigeratorland. The cheese drawer, the vegetable drawer, the butter nook on the door, all neatly tucked in to remind me that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

Seems we humans need a certain semblance of order to feel at home in this world. Whether it’s cleaning the refrigerator or spinning an elaborate Chaos theory to find stability and sense and meaning and orderliness in the apparent jumble of the Universe, our drive for meaning over mess, constancy over commotion, permanence over pandemonium, runs deep. We drag a comb over unruly hair, straighten our tie, set the table, stop at the red light, to create the effect of a neatness that reassures us. We know it’s only a temporary ordering in a world beset by apparently random and helter-skelter events, but hey, it helps!

And what is art put a setting in order of the cacophony of noise until it becomes the soothing tones of music, the muddle of myriad objects brought down to two pears and a glass, the roaring river of language calmed to the bubbling brook of a few well-chosen words? Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a marvelous sonnet that begins, “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines” and describes how despite his efforts to escape and run wild, “I hold his essence and amorphous shape, Till he with Order mingles and combines.” She takes on the tone of a jailer, but implies that it’s for his own good, his meaning not to be explained, but found simply by submitting to Order.

“I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.”

Simply the attempt to capture him in the strict form of the Sonnet is enough to “make him good.” In an essay about Robert Frost, the poet Mary Oliver follows a similar theme:

“In the lyrical poems of Robert Frost there is almost always something wrong, a dissatisfaction or distress.…At the same time, in the same passages, the poem is so pleasant—so very pleasant— to read or to hear.

In fact we are hearing two different messages; everything is all right, says the meter and the rhyme; everything is not all right, say the words…”

That is to say that the poet’s sorrows and dissatisfactions and agonies are contained within the orderly act of making a poem and so transcend mere complaint to give us a strange comfort. And the same can be said of Bach and John Coltrane and Monet and Merce Cunningham, take your pick. Making a conscious ordering, whether it be beer bottles in a refrigerator or bodies on the dance floor. And such ordering is not always neat and trim— think Picasso and Thelonious Monk (who was also said to drive his wife crazy by putting the paintings on the wall in their house slightly askew). Order takes on many shapes and forms.

So off to get a snack after writing. Can’t wait to open that refrigerator!

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